Art Around the World: Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin

Traditionally a leading centre of psychology, law, philosophy and the arts, the previously praiseworthy reputation of Berlin suffered much defamation throughout the twentieth century. Yet since the fall of the iron curtain, the resilient and unique citizens of the German capital have once again cemented the fame of the city as the epicentre of underground, alternative culture and unbridled expressionism, as well as leading European style. Taking a stroll through Unter den Linden, the former axis of the city’s divide, affirms that Berlin has moved on, and is now a centre of modern architecture, with buildings by Gehry, Sir Foster and the like.

Peter Eisenman left his mark in 2005 with Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Bearing south from Brandenburg Gate you encounter a plethora of grey concrete extrusions punctuating the equally grey paved plaza. On initial approach, the apparition is remarkably like that of a graveyard, the sombre mood of the memorial providing a stark contrast to the otherwise jovial, pulsating heart of the city. Swathed in a sea of grey, the permanent installation combines sculpture, architecture and public utility to convey a message of apology to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

Exploration of the monument reveals a surface that undulates and descends inversely to the growth of the labyrinth of grey blocks towering above, peaking in disparity at the centre of the installation. Demonstrating the detail and finesse of the design, the growth of the structures represents the chronology and increasing severity of the Holocaust’s death toll. Walking amidst the full scale display provokes sentiments of disorientation and insignificance. Becoming a part of the art is choreographed in order to evoke empathy with the plight of those it mourns. The light piercing through the forest of grey above exaggerates the effect.

Eisenman has permitted each visitor to acquire their own interpretation through a poignant spatial experience. Amidst the endless rows of stone blocks emerges a stairwell allowing admission to the hidden memorial below. This underground den is filled with still images, stories and footage of primary source recollections on the Holocaust. Particularly moving are the copies of the interned victims’ diary entries, inscribed into the floor and lit from below with fluorescent white light penetrating the otherwise darkened room. Hanging from the far wall of the first room are six images of Holocaust victims, diverse in age, gender, class and nationality, each one representing a million more behind them who fell to the tyranny of the Third Reich.

The phenomenology of the memorial is shared with Daniel Lieberskin’s Jewish Museum also in Berlin, in that the architecture, and relationship of the visitor to it, is arguably as moving as the exhibits within. This dramatic public art installation marks the shame and sincerity of the German people’s apology. While many cultures are free to remain oblivious to reminders of this history, the people of Berlin are faced daily with its remnants. Memorials such as Eisenman’s are common in Berlin, where the residents are keen to assure themselves a progressive and tolerant future, where artistic expression and acceptance become perennial shared values.

Damien Clarke


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